Persecuting the victim

Nicole Colson and Ben Lassiter report on the retaliation against a student in North Carolina for exposing the horrendous way she was treated after being raped.

Students gather to protest UNC's handling of rape (Ben Lassiter | SW)Students gather to protest UNC's handling of rape (Ben Lassiter | SW)

ON MARCH 1, 200 students and activists stood with University of North Carolina (UNC) student Landen Gambill as she sent a message to UNC officials that she would not let them intimidate her into silence.

Gambill says she has been victimized twice--once by her alleged rapist, and now by the UNC administration.

The UNC sophomore has spoken out about the horrifying treatment she says she faced after reporting to college officials that she had been sexually and verbally assaulted during a relationship with a former boyfriend. After the relationship ended, Gambill claims she was stalked and harassed by her ex-boyfriend for months. The trauma of what happened eventually led her to attempt suicide.

Gambill explained how bringing charges against her former boyfriend in the school's Honor Court--in front of a committee made up of two student members, two faculty members and one administrator--ended up becoming another nightmare to endure. As Gambill told the UNC's Daily Tar Heel:

It's incredibly clear that those people [hearing the case] had no idea what sexual assault is, what consent is. They were not only offensive and inappropriate, but they were so victim-blaming. They made it seem like my assault was completely my fault.

What you can do

Send a message to the UNC Honor Court demanding that the charge against Landen Gambill be dismissed. E-mail [email protected].

Call Chancellor Thorp, Board of Trustees Chair Wade Hargrove and other members of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees to protest the treatment of Gambill and other sexual assault survivors:

Chancellor Thorp: 919-962-1365
Wade Hargrove: 919-834-9216
Barbara Rosser Hyde: 901-685-3411
Phil Clay: 617-253-6164
W. Laury Cowdill: 919-471-6721
Donald Williams Curtis: 919-790-9392
Alston Gardner: 970-927-4206
Peter T. Grauer: 212-617-1956
H. Kel Landis III: 919-256-6343
Steven Lerner: 919-932-8818
Sallie Shuping-Russell: 919-416-6860
John L. Townsend III: 212-984-2460
Felicia A. Washington: 704-331-7466
Will Leimenstoll: 336-402-5704

According to Gambill, a female student asked her during the proceeding, "Landen, as a woman, I know that if that had happened to me, I would've broken up with him the first time it happened. Will you explain to me why you didn't?'"

Gambill was also asked to provide graphic testimony recounting her assault. Without her consent or knowledge, that testimony was turned over to her parents. "To this day, my parents and my relationship is really struggling because of the guilt they feel, and because of the graphic details that they heard that no parent should ever hear," she told the Daily Tar Heel.

In the end, the UNC Honor Court determined there was insufficient evidence to find Gambill's alleged rapist guilty.

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DESPITE HER ordeal, Gambill was determined to speak out about what happened to her. She was joined by other students who also described being subjected to inappropriate questioning after reporting that they had been victims of sexual assault.

"If I had known what would happen to me through this system, I don't know if I would have made the same decision [to come forward] again," one anonymous female student told the paper. It was not her rape, she said, but the dehumanizing process she was subjected to after reporting it that caused her to have panic attacks and flashbacks.

According to then-Assistant Dean of Students Melinda Manning--who has since resigned from her position--the training that the student Honor Court received in how to deal with sexual assault cases at the time was "an hour at most." (The university disputes this.)

Manning was so disturbed by what she claims was a pattern of UNC forcing her to underreport sexual assault cases that, in January of this year, she joined four students--Gambill, junior Andrea Pino, another current student whose name has not been made public, and 2011 graduate Annie Clark--in filing a complaint against UNC with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. The complaint alleges that the school violated the Clery Act (mandating that colleges disclose crime statistics) and Title IX (prohibiting gender-based discrimination at colleges that receive federal funding), among other laws.

According to Manning, in 2011, she was explicitly told by the University Counsel's office that the number of sexual assault reports she had compiled for 2010 was "too high." The total was later lowered by three cases without her knowledge. According to the Daily Tar Heel, "The University reported six incidents of forcible sex offenses on campus for 2009, 19 for 2010, the year for which Manning was asked to compile statistics, and 12 for 2011."

Manning also alleges that she was reprimanded by superiors for contacting the Office for Civil Rights about UNC's handling of sexual assault cases and that she was a victim of workplace discrimination--with one superior telling her that she would never be hired for a vacant higher-level position "because she had a young child at home."

Writing in the Huffington Post, Annie Clark explained her decision to join in the complaint:

Throughout my four years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) and two years post-graduation, I have witnessed and fought alongside too many friends and colleagues who have experienced re-victimization and retaliation at the hands of the university. While there are some incredible allies at UNC who have supported survivors and done great prevention work, other administrators have intentionally betrayed those who have come forward...

Yes, my assault was horrific, but witnessing administrative handling of dozens of cases and witnessing the re-victimization of my friends was even more excruciatingly painful.

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IN A sickening twist, UNC is now threatening to discipline Gambill for daring to speak out.

On January 29, Gambill was informed by UNC's Honor Court that she was being charged with violation of the Honor Code under a statute prohibiting "[d]isruptive or intimidating behavior that willfully abuses, disparages or otherwise interferes with another." According to Gambill, the charge against her is being brought by the man she accuses of sexually assaulting her--and Gambill believes he received help in filing the charge from a UNC official.

When Gambill attended a preliminary Honor Court meeting and asked if she could have violated the Honor Code merely by publicly stating she was raped, she was told yes--even though she has never publicly named her attacker.

Despite all this, Landen Gambill is refusing to stop speaking out about her rape and the poor treatment she received from UNC. And hundreds of people are coming to her defense.

At a March 1 rally organized by Survivors and Allies for Empowerment and Reform (SAFER) Carolina, Gambill was flanked by fellow students, faculty, staff and community members.

Speakers stated their determination to fight to reform an institutionalized victim-blaming culture at UNC, and to stand in solidarity with the victims of sexual violence. People in the crowd were moved to tears as survivors courageously shared their stories of sexual assault, and the difficulties survivors face when they choose to speak out.

Speaking about UNC administrators, one student organizer with SAFER stated, "Now those same administrators [who downplayed sexual assault] would rather stand behind perpetrators than admit their wrongdoing, violating Landen's rights. But theirs is not the final word...This is our university, the university of the people. Until these things change here, we are all Landen Gambill."

Karen Booth, a professor of women and gender studies, read a statement by the Progressive Faculty Network of UNC-Chapel Hill that said, in part, "Landen Gambill's experience is clearly the product of a flawed system that needs to be overhauled." Booth called for more resources to be committed to sexual assault prevention, and for legal counseling, psychological services and other forms of support to be provided to assault victims.

Andrea Pino, one of the UNC students and rape survivors who joined Gambill in filing the complaint with the Office for Civil Rights, gave a moving call to turn anger into action:

After years months and hours of writing our stories, reliving our nightmares and speaking out, the university chooses to maintain a silence around sexual violence on this campus. Today we are not talking about our specific rapes, but about the systematic problem of indifference and reactive defense from our university when demanding action against rape on this campus.

In 2007 former UNC student Annie Clark was violently and brutally raped. When she went to ask help from the university, she was met with a victim-blaming response. As many of you know, she was told, "Rape is like a football game, Annie: When you look back on the game, and you're the quarterback and you're in charge, is there anything that you would have done differently in that situation?"

When I was raped and decided to speak out, I was told that I should focus on my "healing timeline" and get over it. When our anonymous complainant demanded justice for treatment, she was told to stop complaining. But as a proud Tar Heel, I will tell this university, what it has done to one of us, it has done to all of us...We did not survive sexual assault to let this university shame us away. Not without a fight.

Gambill also spoke at the rally, telling the crowd:

We--students, faculty, staff and off-campus allies--are determined to make Carolina a place where survivors are believed, supported and protected. I don't want to spend much time talking about me, because it is so important everyone realize that this is not about me. I have been treated with great injustice, but there are so many other survivors who have been treated just as poorly as I have and even worse.

I have heard so many heartbreaking stories: stories of survivors who have been blamed, shamed, ignored and silenced by this university; survivors whose perpetrators were found not guilty in the Honor Court despite all the evidence to the contrary; survivors who were told that being raped was their fault. This is unacceptable and has been happening for years, and it is still happening. It's time to investigate. It's time to ask the hard questions.

Gambill added, "It's time for us to stand up and refuse to be re-victimized. I refuse to sit back and let survivors be called crazy sluts and liars. I refuse to accept that the way this university allows survivors to live in hell is inevitable."

In early March, the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights announced it had opened an investigation into how UNC deals with sexual assault cases. While this doesn't mean UNC has yet been held responsible in any way, activists say it's a step forward.

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GAMBILL, PINO, Clark and other victims of sexual violence at UNC who say they were re-victimized by a university system more concerned with downplaying crime statistics than bringing them justice are by no means alone.

They join the growing ranks of women at colleges across the U.S. who, in recent months, have come forward to expose not only the sickening prevalence of sexual violence on college campuses, but the way university administrations are often complicit in allowing the violence to continue.

In eerily similar language, survivors of sexual assault on campuses have reported being questioned about their drinking habits, whether they encouraged their attacker, whether they really wanted to "ruin" a young man's life by making a complaint, and whether their attack was just a "gray area" or a misunderstanding.

This includes places like Amherst College where, in November, student Angie Epifano wrote about her experience reporting being raped: "I was continuously told that I had to forgive him, that I was crazy for being scared on campus...They told me: We can report your rape as a statistic...but I don't recommend that you go through a disciplinary hearing."

After telling a counselor how unsafe she felt at Amherst after her experience, Epifano was escorted off campus and checked into a psychiatric ward for depression. She had to later fight simply for the right to return to campus and resume her education.

Epifano's experience mirrors that of Northwestern University senior Lauren Buxbaum. Buxbaum was raped by an acquaintance and became pregnant as a result. When she told a professor she was struggling with depression, university police arrived at her door and transported her involuntarily to a psychiatric ward. She was later told she could not come back to Northwestern without signing a medical release.

As an article in the Daily Northwestern described:

Because individuals on medical leave are not active students, they no longer qualify for federal financial aid. Buxbaum works five different babysitting jobs in addition to her job at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall--one of her few points of contact with [Northwestern University]--to pay for her Evanston apartment...

"I feel like a loser, like an outcast," Buxbaum said. "Like I'm not supposed to be here, that I did something wrong. That because it's going to take me five years to graduate, that I'm a failure.

As these voices calling for justice point out, the vast majority of rapes on campus--not to mention society at large--go unreported, precisely because they are met with such hostility and blame. As Andrea Pino told the crowd at UNC: "Every two minutes, somewhere in America, someone is raped. But by treating rape as a taboo, we are perpetuating the silence, shame and betrayal that allows sexual violence to thrive."

This week, for example, it was reported that elite Princeton University buried a 2008 survey that found more than 15 percent of female undergraduates reported "experiencing non-consensual vaginal penetration during their time at the university." Additionally, according to the Daily Princetonian, "[M]ore than 28 percent of female undergraduate students reported that they were touched in a sexual manner or had their clothes removed without consent. About 12 percent said they were forced to receive or perform oral sex, and an additional 14 percent were said they were victims of attempted forced oral sex."

When asked why Princeton failed to report the findings, Amada Sandoval, director of the campus Women's Center, suggested that the university believed that it wouldn't have been "fair" for Princeton to be associated with such statistics. "Anything about Princeton goes international, practically, and no other universities do that, so does Princeton want to be the one to say that this many of our students are sexually assaulted? I don't think so," Sandoval told the Daily Princetonian.

Such attitudes obstruct any serious discussion about how to end sexual assault. Perpetrators are allowed to get away with rape when universities fail to take such crimes seriously--and especially when they blame the victims for their own assaults.

As Landen Gambill explained to the website Jezebel.com, this is why she refuses to be silent:

This type of gross injustice is the reason why UNC students are speaking out and demanding answers. The reason why I'm so vocal about this isn't because I just want justice for my case. I want to make sure no one else has to go through this if they want to report an assault to the university.